News & Politics

The Obama Wars: Why Do We Tear Each Other Apart Over Whether the President Is a Failure or Success?

The debate over Obama's role in the mess we're in is distracting progressives from the real fight.

What, if anything, is the matter with Obama? This is a question that sharply divides progressives today, the central front on what has become known as the “Obama Wars.”

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The Obama Wars can be vicious – they're often reminiscent of the 2008 primary fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. In online communities, the conflict pits “Obamabots,” whose mindless fealty to Our Dear Leader renders them incapable of independent thought, and “emo-progs,” members of the “professional left” whose lust for attacking the administration and refusal to give it credit for its accomplishments will only discourage Democratic voters and ultimately usher in a Bachmann presidency and a Supreme Court packed with far-right activist judges.

Such is the reality when, two years after a campaign promising hope and change swept our nation's first black president into office, our political system is still completely screwed up and the country remains mired in a long depression.

Sadly, the debate over Obama's role in this mess is marked by numerous straw-men and red herrings, because much of it is a battle of counterfactuals. For example, I personally believe that if Democrats began legislative fights from an unabashedly progressive proposal, rather than from what's perceived to be the center, we would end up with better outcomes. But that's an untested belief – at least in my time -- and I'm humble enough to acknowledge that I can't say with any certainty that offering proposals from further to the left wouldn't have backfired.

Take another example: the filibuster. We can all agree it has been abused in an unprecedented fashion since Obama came to power. Obama has been criticized for not calling on Congress to reform it (until after the 2010 midterms), and it's entirely possible that if he had gone to the mat for changing the way the Senate does business, we'd have seen it happen. But members of the upper chamber have always fiercely protected their privileges, and Democrats know they'll be in the minority again. The Democratic caucus is divided on the idea, and Harry Reid has sent mixed messages about whether he supports changing the rules. A lot of people seem very certain that if Obama had pushed for reforming the filibuster it would have happened, or that even if Obama had pushed for it, the leadership in the Senate had no interest in giving up what they viewed as their minority rights. Again, that's a debate over counterfactuals.

Obama's presidency, it seems, serves as a proxy for larger debates about how best to acquire and exercise power, the nature of our political discourse, and larger questions about the effectiveness of Democratic electoral politics. Consider some of the arguments behind the arguments over Obama – and the degree to which progressives are talking past one another.

Psychologist Drew Westen recently penned a lengthy op-ed in the New York Times taking Obama to task for not articulating a progressive vision for America. Westen argued that after the financial crash, “there was a story the American people were waiting to hear — and needed to hear — but he didn’t tell it. And in the ensuing months he continued not to tell it, no matter how outrageous the slings and arrows his opponents threw at him.”

Westen wanted to hear Obama state explicitly that the crash “was not a natural disaster.” He envisioned a speech in which Obama told the American people that the disaster “was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures.”

It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.”

The piece drew quite a bit of passionate criticism. On the Charlie Rose Show, Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria and Jonathan Chait of the New Republic mocked Westen – and disgruntled liberals more generally – as being hopelessly out of touch with reality. “It's a dramatic overestimation of the power of rhetoric to effect policis in Congress and to effect public opinion,” said Chait. Zakaria said that Westen was channeling Hollywood: “The president gets up and makes this incredibly moving speech, which is of course deeply liberal, the entire country cheers, and then all of a sudden all of our problems go away.” Calling that “nonsense,” he added, “the reality is that Obama is working within a very constrained political environment... and within that context look at what he's done. This is a guy that passed the largest stimulus in American history, he passed universal health-care which has been a Democatic aspiration since Harry Truman... And I'm a little hard-pressed to see what the great liberal betrayal has been.”

The panel then turned to a debate about what “Americans really want,” with Zakaria noting that polling the American people gets you nothing but a pile of contradictions-- they want low taxes, good public services and think debt is a pressing problem. Westen pushed back: “Actually, the American people have said since day 1 of this administration, 'we want jobs!'” Jobs, he argued, is “the agenda the president could have and should have pushed and didn't.”

The scorecard in this debate looks something like this: Zakaria and Chait are right when they say that moving public opinion isn't easy, but they battle a straw-man when they talk about Obama giving a single sweeping speech that changes everything – you move the discourse by repeating the same message again and again, personally and through surrogates. Yet Westen was wrong when he wrote, “there was no story — and there has been none since.” In his piece, he described five stories Obama had failed to tell the American people, but an examination of presidential speeches over the past two years found that Obama has in fact told four of the five.

In a larger sense, they're all correct -- and this gets to the heart of the Obama Wars: the two sides are employing very different levels of analysis. Zakaria and Chait are talking about legislative outcomes, and they're right. Obama's critics, by and large, haven't acknowledged what history likely will: Obama, faced with a devastated economy and an obstinate opposition, has arguably achieved more than one could reasonably expect given the political context. Obama's progressive critics often seem to overestimate the power of the presidency, and underemphasize the road-block that Congress has represented, even when the Democrats had large majorities in both chambers. Around 300 pieces of legislation passed the House before the GOP took it over, only to die at the hands of the Senate. If, say, 100 of those bills – many of them quite progressive – had passed the Senate over its majority of Republicans and blue dog Democrats, Obama's already impressive list of accomplishments would be that much heftier.

What Chait and Zakaria miss is the inseparable connection between the political discourse in this country and legislative outcomes over the longer term. Looking at the period between 2008 and 2012, one can argue that Obama has done an impressive job given the circumstances, but he has embraced inherently conservative narratives about taxes, spending and the role of government, much to the detriment of the progressive movement over the longer term. He has said that debt is the “greatest threat” facing the United States today, compared the government's budget to a household's, said that regulatory “uncertainty” was keeping corporate America from hiring, said that “entitlements” – a word no progressive should ever use – were unsustainable over the long run and essentially stayed the course on foreign policy. All of this validates conservative arguments and leaves Democrats trying to thread an incredibly thin needle. On Social Security and Medicare, for example, the party's message is that these programs will eventually bankrupt the nation, but that they can “strengthen” them – cut benefits – in a far less painful way than their Republican counterparts would.

Chait said there's little evidence that rhetoric effects legislative outcomes, but the data he's talking about are based on short-term studies. But consider Zakaria's spiel about how confused Americans are about taxes and public spending. That is a result of a long and concerted effort to influence the discourse in this country. Reagan wasn't the first to say that government is by definition a problem, and can't offer solutions, but he articulated it well, again and again and again. It's a narrative that has been amplified by all corners of the conservative movement, and the idea that this thinking becoming widespread doesn't impact policy defies common sense.

In April, Obama gave a major deficit speech that won plaudits from many liberals because the president took a tough stance toward Republicans and drew sharp contrasts between his policies and those advanced by the Republicans. The speech did an excellent job setting the stage for the near-term debate that would follow in the lead-up to the 2012 elections – it was good politics. But I wrote that the address “was a catastrophe for progressives who argue that we need to grow our way out of the deficit by addressing the economic crisis pummeling 'Main Street.'” That wasn't a statement about the near-term politics; it spoke to the longer-term discourse in our political-economy.

So, this is actually a debate over whether one should do what one can within the political constraints of the day, or expend a lot of energy trying to move the political dialogue in one's preferred direction. In a New York Times article this week, an administration source was quoted saying, “It would be political folly to make the argument that government spending equals jobs.” That may be the case, but in this economic environment, it's also true. Does that attitude impact policy? According to the article, Obama's campaign guru, “David Plouffe, and his chief of staff, William M. Daley, want [Obama] to maintain a pragmatic strategy of appealing to independent voters by advocating ideas that can pass Congress, even if they may not have much economic impact. These include free trade agreements and improved patent protections for inventors.”

The Obama Wars are also a manifestation of people's expectations of his presidency, and here Obama and his campaign team bear some responsibility. Obama didn't promise to do what he could to dig the country out of eight years of disastrous Republican governance: he promised to change Washington – to usher in a new era of comity and reason -- and people believed him. They shouldn't have, because at the end of the day, progressives still faced any number of structural hurdles. Campaign cash still rules, our media still display a knee-jerk deference to whatever conventional wisdom is flying around the Beltway, and a small minority can still do a good job blocking legislation – the GOP's 41 votes in the Senate represented just 11 percent of the population.

Many progressives have been frustrated by Obama's tendency to blame Washington's “dysfunctional politics” for poor outcomes rather than naming the culprit – Republican obstructionism. This, like his foreign policy, should have come as no surprise – he was quite clear about his approach to political knife-fights from the beginning of the campaign. In fact, way back in early 2008, at the beginning of the primary campaign, I wrote, “if Obama were to win the nomination, those desperate to see real change should hope that Barack Obama's touchy-feely message of hope and healing is nothing more than snappy campaign rhetoric.”

Obama's run as the candidate of "change" -- a nebulous slogan with huge appeal given the depth of the hole that Bush has dug over the last seven years. According to his campaign's narrative, Obama would not only change Washington, but he'd do it by bridging the gap between the Right and Left, healing long-festering wounds, bringing a polarized electorate together and uniting the country...

Yet the message is as hopelessly naive in the real world of American politics as it is appealing on the stump, and for a simple reason: it assumes that the GOP -- dominated as it is by "movement conservatives" in the Delay-Rove mold -- and it's corporate backers are interested in engaging in a thoughtful debate over how to make America a better country. If that were the case, then bridging the divide through calm words and negotiation would certainly be better by leaps and bounds than the ugly brand of politics we have today.

Finally, the Obama Wars are an extension of long-standing liberal debates about how much fealty the Democratic Party merits. You can go back to Ralph Nader's 2000 bid, or earlier, and the question of how much support to lend to Democrats as they triangulate away progressive principles is just as divisive today. Obama's supporters argue that the incessant negativity among liberal pundits – the “professional left” – can only depress Democratic turnout and serve the eventual Republican nominee. This seems a misunderstanding of the role of journalists – even progressive opinion journalists. If making poor compromises and embracing conservative narratives disheartens the base, that rests on the administration itself, not people analyzing the effects of those choices.

Having said that, there is a real danger that refusing to acknowledge the administration’s accomplishments has the potential to sour activist zeal in the run-up to the election. But so far, that doesn't appear to be the case. While Obama saw a decline in liberal support during the debt ceiling negotiations, he still remains quite popular with the base. As of late July, Obama enjoyed a higher approval rating among Democrats at this point in his presidency than any president since FDR – higher than Clinton, Kennedy or Truman. Recent polls show that 72 percent of self-identified liberals (and 77 percent of Democrats) approve of the job Obama has done – a number one would be surprised to discover after reading liberal blogs and listening to progressive talk-radio.